Politics & Policy

Young Americans Increasingly Prefer Socialism. Here’s How to Change Their Minds

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders react as he speaks during a rally in Detroit, Mich., March 6, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Opponents of socialism must make a case that is moral, not merely material.

Young Americans like socialism. That’s one finding of a new Axios/Momentive poll surveying American attitudes toward topics such as economic inequality, capitalism and socialism, and government’s role in the economy.

Among Americans aged 18-24, the poll reports that only 42 percent of those surveyed regardless of political affiliation have a positive view of capitalism, while 54 percent have a negative view. Only two years ago, the same polling survey had 58 percent of the same demographic favoring capitalism, while 38 percent had a negative view.

These changes aren’t just confined to shifts among younger progressive-leaning Americans. In 2019, 81 percent of those who leaned Republican, aged 18-34, had a positive opinion of capitalism. Now, however, only 66 percent of this demographic maintain this view.

Precisely what these younger Americans have in mind by words such as “socialism” or “capitalism” isn’t discussed in this poll. Few, I imagine, are thinking of a Stalinist command economy when they think of socialism. Their opinions more likely reflect concerns about inequality, a desire to see America become something like a European social democracy, or a sense that there’s something wrong with 21st-century American capitalism.

I suspect, however, that sympathies for socialism also reflect a lack of understanding of what free markets are and, importantly, what they are not. In my experience, young Americans will often say that they think the economy is rigged in favor of the privileged and well-connected. Indeed, they are right to believe so.

What they don’t grasp is that this problem has little to do with markets and everything to do with the cronyism which permeates America’s economy. Nor do they recognize that cronyism is enabled by widespread government intervention in the economy. The bigger the government, the more likely cronyism will prevail.

Nor is it enough to explain to younger Americans the ways in which capitalism’s economic performance is infinitely superior to socialism’s record — or that of European social democracies, for that matter. Many young people also want to live in an economy which they regard as just. I can only agree.

This makes it ever more urgent for those who support free markets to double down on educating young Americans in the economic and moral case for capitalism. It means taking them through the writings of the very best free-market thinkers — people such as Adam Smith, Wilhelm Röpke, F. A. Hayek, and Michael Novak — who didn’t hesitate to defend markets on economic and moral grounds.

But it also means answering their questions about the issues preoccupying them, whether it is concerns about what they see as unjust wealth and income inequalities, or fears that free trade weakens America vis-a-vis our enemies.

In early June, I had an opportunity to take precisely such a group of young Americans from different backgrounds and political viewpoints through a crash course in the morality and economics of markets under the auspices of The Heritage Foundation. All the participants had some knowledge of economics, but only limited exposure to classic free-market texts and thinkers.

In many cases, they accepted that markets were more efficient and effective in generating wealth than the alternatives. For the most part, however, they had never heard the philosophical arguments for markets laid out by people such as Smith, Röpke, Hayek, and Novak.

Among other things, understanding these arguments involves explaining that self-interest, as understood by Adam Smith, is not the same as greed, and showing that socialism could only work if governments were capable of knowing everything going on in the economy at any moment in time all the time. But perhaps the most decisive argument for markets that resonated with the students was what I’ll call a morally realist understanding of human nature.

Say, for example, you view humans as beings with reason and free will, who alone among all the Earth’s species possess the gift of creativity, who are simultaneously individual and social, who are driven to a considerable degree by self-interest, who are capable of moral greatness but also prone to error, and who can’t know everything. If you believe these things, you will surely arrive at very different economic conclusions than someone who doesn’t, deep down, believe that humans are free, creative, capable of knowing and choosing the truth, but also self-interested and fallible.

Therein lies the recipe for explaining to younger Americans why markets work and socialism fails. Socialism is grounded upon a conception of human beings which is, in a word, false. It denies human individuality, liberty, and fallibility, and thus ends up oppressing people. By contrast, capitalism pays attention to realities about human nature which never change.

That is the message which I have discovered resonates with young Americans and inoculates them against socialism’s lies. It’s also a message that is as much moral as it is economic.

Socialists learned a long time ago that if you can win the moral argument, you tend to win hearts and minds, especially among idealistic young people. Free-marketers need to recognize that winning the economic argument against socialism simply isn’t enough. They must also confront socialism’s lies about human nature with the full truth about who human beings are. Because in the end, it really is the fullness of the truth that sets us free.

Samuel Gregg is a Visiting Scholar at the Feulner Institute at The Heritage Foundation and Research Director at the Acton Institute.

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